18 June 2016

Evolution 2016, Day 1

I've wanted to go to the Evolution meeting for years. I was so delighted when it practically landed in my backyard this year in Austin.

Of course, because Texas is big, it probably too me longer to travel by car to the meeting from within the state than many others took by flying in. That last mile on I-35 is always a killer (15 minutes to go about a mile).

The opening evening started with a social, where two former UTPA students came up and found me - one who'd been in one of our undergraduate training programs and is finishing up a master's at Michigan, and one who'd done a master's and is now doing a Ph.D. here in Austin. It's so good to see people who are continuing!

Carl Zimmer gave the opening talk, after receiving the Stephen Jay Gould award for writing about evolution. Carl talked about how successful Gould was as a writer, and of his one encounter with him. Carl was working as a copy editor for Discover magazine, and got asked to edit one of Gould's essays. Now, Carl didn't say this, but Gould was infamously protective of his prose. Gould was many things, and even his close friends admitted he could be difficult. Carl said, "I think I got him to change one comma."

Carl's talk mostly focused on the discoveries around human evolution, which have so emphatically shown a point that Gould made again and again: evolution is not a straight line march of progress, but a "luxuriant bush." But Carl noted, rightly I think, that even Gould would not have predicted the wild interbreeding that ancient DNA evidence is showing us. "Call it a bramble, call it an orgy...".

I saw a few tweets suggesting that Carl's talk was too basic for a scientific conference. He did introduce DNA, in case someone had forgotten it. What I think some people forgot was two things.

First, there were a lot of students in the room. A lot of this information would be new to them, or maybe something that a quick reminder of basic s would help them follow.

Second, and I may be mistaken here, I think this talk was intended as a free talk, open to the general public, not just for conference attendees. And there I think it would have been completely appropriate to mention some of the basics that Carl did.

Today's sessions are starting in about six minutes. I hope to have a day 2 report tomorrow!

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